The Spacecraft Assembly Line

This video debuted at the 2020 Future Leaders Celebration.

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The year was 1908 and the automobile was the prestige product of the age. Designed by brilliant engineers with names like Daimler and Benz, they were built one at a time by skilled craftsmen and sold in small numbers to the very wealthy. 

In that year of 1908, it all changed – because that was the year when the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line. The car cost 23,000 of today’s dollars, and the price fell every year until – a decade later – Model Ts made up half of all cars in America. 

Ford conquered the market by making cars simpler and more standard, and by creating that famous assembly line to produce them in large numbers with consistent quality.

A Revolution in Satellite Production

Today, that same revolution is coming to a product that is literally out of this world. For decades, skilled engineers and technicians have been building satellites designed for unique missions and making them one at a time. They have delivered one or two dozen per year, each with a high price tag and each designed to operate for decades in high orbit around Earth.

The business of space is changing as companies begin putting dozens or hundreds or thousands of satellites in orbit – satellites whose cameras reveal Earth’s secrets in astounding new detail, whose antennas bring high-capacity communication to the remotest corners of the globe.

Space is nothing like the roads traveled by the Model T. It is airless, freezing cold and blazing hot, and flooded with radiation. Building for it is hard, but the assembly line has come to the manufacturing of satellites, and nothing will ever be the same again.

The Assembly Line Comes to Space

In a new factory near Cape Canaveral, Florida, OneWeb Satellites operates the most automated assembly lines in the business. They run in a clean room the size of 24 basketball courts that keeps them free of contaminants that could lead to failure in space. Components arrive at the building in a steady stream from a supply chain that stretches around the world. Two weeks later, finished satellites emerge from the other side at a rate of up to two per day.

In between is the assembly line, where engineers, technicians, tools and robotics take part in a complex dance of creation. They build components into standard modules, and automated vehicles carry them to an assembly station, where teams assemble them into finished satellites. At each step, there are automated tests to check quality. Satellites that fail are sidelined for repair.

And the testing isn’t finished when the satellite is in one piece. It goes next into one of 32 special chambers for two days of testing to make sure it can survive the trauma of rocket launch and work reliably in the airless, blazing and freezing conditions it will meet in space. Only when it has passed this battery of tests is it ready to be racked and stacked for its journey to the launch pad.

Bringing the Future Closer Every Day

Forecasters see an exciting future for space and satellite. Step by step, we are laying the foundations of a 1 trillion dollar space economy reaching from the Earth to the Moon and Mars. And with each step, life on Earth gets better. Fewer lives are lost to disaster, disease and poverty.  More food reaches the hungriest thanks to data from space. More people connect to broadband by satellite. New industries begin putting the limitless resources of space to work for everyone.

Rocket launches are thrilling – and rocket landings are a marvel. But it is on the humble assembly line that the future is taking shape every day.

OneWeb Satellites is a joint venture between Airbus, the global leader in the aerospace industry, and OneWeb, a company founded in 2012 that will deploy and operate a constellation of up to 900 low-earth orbit satellites providing global high-speed internet access. Airbus and OneWeb formed the company to design and manufacture the satellites for the OneWeb constellation.

In order to achieve the volume, cost and time requirements of the OneWeb project, the company had to fundamentally rethink how satellites are made. Up until now, satellites have been designed and built individually for a specific purpose, much like a fine bespoke suit. OneWeb Satellites’ approach is commoditization and mass production, meaning we build satellites the way Ford and Airbus build cars and airplanes.

To realize its vision, OneWeb Satellites assembled an international team that represents the very best of new space, old space, aircraft and automotive manufacturing and a myriad of other industries. The company created an industrial supply chain consisting of approximately 40 suppliers, each of whom is themselves mass producing the parts of our satellites. OneWeb Satellites deployed industrial-scale, automated inventory management systems. And it built two state-of-the-art factories containing first ever high-volume, high speed satellite assembly lines. The result is where a traditional satellite may cost tens of millions of dollars and take years to build, OneWeb Satellites can do it at less than 10% of the cost and at a production rate faster than one per day.

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Photo by ModelTMitch. Used under Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.